A Taste of the Old Country in 1941 Montreal

Guinness Foreign Extra Touted in a Mobilized Canada

In October 1941, the war was accelerating on all fronts. Things looked perilous for the Russian army as hundreds of thousands of German troops encircled them. The Nazi persecution of the Jews had reached an unprecedented level of depravity, and would get much worse. Imperial Japan continued its pitiless military conquests. Pearl Harbor was a few weeks away. And much else.

The outlook was and would remain grim for years to come.

Canada had been on a war-footing for two years, and local newspapers were full of war news. At the same time, life went on. The Montreal Gazette of October 15, 1941 reflected the war but also local life as it had always been – local and church news, fashion ads, other business news and ads, political developments.

I grew up in Montreal, indeed with the Gazette as we called it tout court. The paper carries on, which I always read on my return visits there.

Many of the ads or other mentions from 1941 resonate from things I remember as a kid, e.g., Morgan’s Department Store on Ste. Catherine Street. (It is still there, now called The Bay). If I was 12 in 1962 – I was – this is only 20 years later. Lots had changed by then including the suburbanization of the city and rising French nationalism, but lots hadn’t changed.

Reading the 1941 Gazette reminds me of my youth but as an alternate version so to speak.

The actual physical stuff of 1940s Canadian war-making was still in evidence in c. 1960 Montreal. Armouries were still active and advertised for cadets. I almost signed up once. Newspapers still carried ads for surplus clothing, vehicles, and weapons. I remember the .303 Lee Enfield rifle in particular offered for sale. You could find it and much more in the numerous army surplus stores.

Of course war memories were still fresh, added to by the Korean War. My father was a 17-year-old private in the Canadian Black Watch (RHR) in 1945 and trained at Farnham, QC. A number in the family had enlisted, some fought in Europe. There were no direct persecutions from the Germans as our people came before WW I. But I remember the stories from friends. At the corner Jewish bakery, the ladies serving had blue-inked numbers on their arms.

The 1941 papers still carried beverage alcohol ads, whether this continued until VE Day I can’t say. The availability of alcohol to the populace was surely seen as a morale-booster and it was probably felt a few ads would do no harm.  The ads themselves have both a pre- and post-war feel, that is they reflect the interests of a consumer society, just as the fashion ads do. This was part of the binary mentality that always continues in any war setting. People carry on but it’s always on the backdrop of something out of kilter – at least that’s how it strikes me reading the 1941 Gazette 75 years later.

I will look at three of the ads.  The first is for Guinness Foreign Extra Stout, the strong, exported version of Guinness still sold (but not in Canada, today). The beer perhaps was still being imported from a bottler in neutral Ireland. Either that or it was prewar stock, or perhaps obtained from a Guinness warehouse in New York.

A few things to note. The ad made hay of a number of Guinness attributes:

  • all-barley malt
  • no filtration (“never, never“)
  • aged for at least one year in “oak vats”
  • not pasteurized and retaining “active yeast”.

None of those selling points characterizes Guinness today, to my knowledge.

It’s interesting that the ad invites readers to ask anyone “from England” about the beer. It goes on to state that anyone in “the Old Country” knows its value. These vague references perhaps were intended to suggest Guinness was at least as British as Irish. Ireland had only been independent for some 20 years, so this was a natural connection anyway. Also, the appeal to Britannic and Irish (the ad does refer to Dublin) tastes implies the superiority of Old World production.

This was a big part of British beer’s appeal for generations in North America. The tug was strongest from the mid-1800s until perhaps the 1930s but endured until about 20 years ago. Finally the turnaround came with the success of American craft beer, especially IPA, in Britain today. It took a while though, like 200 years.

I’ll deal with the next two drinks in subsequent posts.


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